Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Two Smallest Books

[ Originally written on  Apr 28, 2007 ]

The two smallest books in my, admittedly, modest home library of approximately 1,000 volumes are only 14 and 16 centimeters in height.  (Measuring books is one way that cataloguers in libraries describe them.)   Now and again, I will take one or both of these small books with me when I travel.   The smallest book is a copy of the New Testament, the next smallest an anthology of writings about Socrates.
The anthology, published by Barnes & Noble in their Essential Thinkers series, contains those writings by Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon which concern Socrates.  Neither Jesus of Nazareth nor Socrates wrote anything, at least nothing that has survived.  Both of them, however, so impressed their disciples that they left to posterity their most famous teachings.  Aristophanes, however, became more of an adversary of Socrates than a disciple.  His account of Socrates in his comedy "The Clouds" is a hostile caricature.  There are numerous, extra-canonical books about Jesus, the contents of which many would dismiss as similarly inaccurate if not hostile.
Both Jesus and Socrates had powerful adversaries in their communities, enemies who plotted against them and who brought about their humiliation and execution.  Socrates, of course, was given the alternative of drinking poison hemlock or being executed and chose self-destruction.  Jesus certainly knew his fate and did not turn away from it.  Socrates was given an offer of escape by his disciples, but he refused what to him would have been a dishonorable option.  Jesus could have had himself delivered by legions of angels, but chose not to call upon them for rescue.   When one of Jesus's disciples drew his sword and cut off a solder's ear, Jesus forbade further violence and miraculously healed the soldier.  Both Socrates and Jesus quietly accepted what later generations have seen as great acts of injustice.

In today's increasingly secular world, those who honor Socrates most often do not honor Jesus and vice versa.  Thomas Jefferson was a rare person in giving equal honor to both.  Socrates is a hero to the American Humanist Association, but he is never even mentioned in the churches.  Needless to say, the Humanists have little to say about Jesus that is positive.  Humanists, at most, will praise Jesus as a type of early social reformer, a reading of his life that is a great distortion.  (On this point, see Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus, which convincingly refutes the thesis that Jesus preached a "social gospel.")   Socrates, moreover, was not quite the rationalist that persons such as Voltaire made him out to be.  He was as much a spiritual, otherworldly teacher as was Jesus.  

Jesus's greatest teaching was of our need to separate the sinner from his sin.  That means giving up all ideas of revenge.  We cannot achieve revenge for the same reason that we cannot step into the same river twice.  Situations constantly change.  Forgiveness must begin somewhere. Without it, the whole world will go up in flames.
Socrates' greatest teaching was the principle of evaluating a man's ideas apart from our evaluation of the man.  If Politician X says that global warming is a reality, we are not (logically) excused from considering his thesis on its own merits apart from the fact that we may oppose Politician X.  Just because Hitler said something, that does not make it untrue.


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